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St. Croix Central football team aims for third straight playoff upset

Senior halfback Aaron Delander (89) spins out of a tackle attempt on this running play during Saturday's game.1 / 5
One of the key plays of Saturday's game occurred when Central defensive end Tyler Lathe (hands in air) forced Barron quarterback Neil Rasmussen (3) to pull back this pass attempt. Lathe then bowled over his blocker and sacked Rasmussen, giving Central a 23-14 lead.2 / 5
Central quarterback Carl Moll leaps into the arms of teammate Cody Nyhagen (23) after Moll scored the first touchdown in Saturday's game.3 / 5
St. Croix Central receiver Dante Carlson (right) catches the winning touchdown after it deflected off the hands of teammate Jason Matteson (6).4 / 5
St. Croix Central's Cody Nyhagen (23) follows the blocking of Aaron Delander on a running play in the third quarter of St. Croix Central's victory on Saturday.5 / 5

First, the St. Croix Central football team knocked off the undefeated number two seed.

Then the Panthers took out the third seed in a 37-29 thriller on Saturday.

Now the Panthers are gunning to upset the top seed and advance to the WIAA state football semifinals.

The Panthers will play at 1 p.m. in Somerset on Saturday, looking to knock off the top-seeded Spartans. Central has already shown that it can pull off upsets, having defeated Northland Pines and Barron. Winning against Somerset is something that has been difficult for the Panthers in recent years. But don't expect Central to make drastic changes to its playing style, the way Bloomer did before its 33-10 loss to Somerset last Friday.

"You go with what brung you to the dance," said Central coach Tony DiSalvo, saying the Panthers would use the same offense and defense that they have all season. The Panthers just need to sharpen their execution of both for this big game," he added.

The Panthers' 37-29 win over Barron on Saturday was filled with ups and downs. The Panthers played exceptionally in the last three minutes of the game to get the winning touchdown after Barron had tied the score at 29-29. The winning drive was made possible by a kickoff return from senior Cody Nyhagen to the Barron 47 yard line.

Senior quarterback Carl Moll twice kept the drive alive by scrambling for first downs. With the Panthers facing fourth-and-goal at the Barron 16, Moll launched a pass for the left corner of the end zone, where two Panther receivers had come together. Sophomore Jason Matteson made a leaping attempt at the ball, but it slipped through his hands. Directly behind him was junior Dante Carlson, who caught the ball in his chest, putting a bear hug on the ball so the Barron defenders couldn't knock it out of his grasp.

DiSalvo said the concentration shown by Carlson in catching the tipped pass did not surprise him.

"That was a big-time play in a lot of respects. That's the kind of kid Dante is. He's a heads up kid," DiSalvo said.

Barron still had a minute left to try for a tying score. On the Bears' first play they tried a deep pass over the middle, where Matteson made a leaping interception to lock up the Panther win.

Many fans were expecting to see 100 passes thrown in Saturday's game because both teams have had most of their offensive success passing the ball this season. Instead, both teams made a concerted effort to establish a running game. Both teams tried more running plays than pass plays in the contest.

Central's pass defense was outstanding, limiting Barron to nine completions in 20 attempts. Barron's top receiver, Isaiah Frandsen, was held to three catches in the game. Quarterback Neil Rasmussen could produce just 114 passing yards.

"That kid is one of the top 10 passers in the state," DiSalvo said. "Our coaches did a nice job of figuring out what to do to slow them down."

One of the key moves was having Nyhagen play directly across from Frandsen on every play. Nyhagen's physical play made it tough for Frandsen to get off the line clean, throwing off the timing of the Barron pass offense.

Central's coaches designed a defense with extra emphasis on stopping Barron's deep passing game. They were willing to let Barron have some short runs in exchange for shutting down the deep passing game that has produced the majority of Barron's touchdowns this season.

Central's defense did come up with several big plays and turnovers during the game. One of the biggest was provided in the third quarter by defensive end Tyler Lathe. Central had driven to the Barron 4 before being stopped. Barron immediately tried a pass play, but Lathe leaped up to block Rasmussen's passing lane. Lathe then bowled over his blocker to sack Rasmussen in the end zone for a safety that put the Panthers ahead 23-14 with 1:52 left in the third quarter.

Central's offense executed well at times during the game, but the Panthers had serious difficulties when they got near the Barron goal line. Twice the Panthers got the ball inside the Barron 5-yard line and didn't score and another time they reached the Barron 15 and got no points from it.

DiSalvo said those missed opportunities and the 10 penalties the Panthers committed Saturday can't happen against Somerset.

The Panthers didn't miss out on all their opportunities. Moll scored on an 11-yard scramble for the first touchdown of the game with 3:11 left in the first quarter. Carlson made a leaping catch for touchdown in the second quarter and Nyhagen scored on a pass from Moll in the third quarter. When Barron shaved Central's lead to 23-21 in the fourth quarter, the Panthers immediately drove 59 yards to rebuild their lead, with Moll scoring that touchdown.

Moll finished with 262 yards passing. The catches were well distributed between Carlson, Nyhagen, Matteson and Lathe.

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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